“The virtual world is part of a child’s reality”

How we use media has fundamentally changed families and schools

Over the past decades, how our society uses media has fundamentally changed. All of us need to learn to deal with this transformation. As media psychologist Daniel Süss points out, both families and schools play a key role in this context.

Eveline von Arx: You have studied the media behavior of children and adolescents for the past 25 years. What has changed during that time?

Daniel Süss: At first, television was still the dominant medium. The question people were asking was how watching violent scenes on TV might affect children’s development. In the 1980s, the concern was that they might be harmed by having access to material on television that they would not otherwise see. Then, in the mid-1990s, cell phones and the internet came along. Today our main focus is on the use of smartphones. However, our team has always tried to include other media, such as books, in our research as well.

EvA: What have you learned?

DS: The MIKE study gathered information about media use from 1,065 primary school students between the ages of 6 and 13, as well as 641 parents, in Switzerland between September 2014 and January 2015. It found that these young people still like to spend time with their friends, but that digital networks are almost always part of their activities. The virtual world overlaps with the real world.

EvA: A mother recently told me about a trip she took to London with her two teenage children. During their stay in that enormous and fascinating city, they were constantly participating in group chats or posting on social media. That bothered their mother.

DS: In the past, we didn’t have the option of sharing information – and photos – about our activities with people who weren’t present, in real time. From the perspective of a developmental psychologist, it is important in this context that peers play an increasingly significant role during adolescence.

While teenagers are still family-oriented – more so than previous generations, in fact – and continue to go on vacation with their parents, at the same time they want to stay in contact and communicate with their peers. By adolescence, many young people in the past had lost interest in traveling with their parents; when they did go along on family vacations, they were mainly interested in meeting kids of their own age. So the behavior of these teenagers is consistent with the expectations of developmental psychologists, and cannot necessarily be attributed to social media.

EvA: Young people are said to have a “fear of missing out” if they don’t know what’s going on with their peers.

DS: Yes, some certainly feel that pressure. A family vacation is a perfect time for parents to bring up this topic and to come to an agreement with their children about when smartphones should and should not be used.

EvA: We’ve seen a number of reports of individual teenagers or entire school classes deciding to put their smartphones away for a few weeks.

DS: Yes, that’s an interesting development! When we first get a smartphone, we’re excited to try out all the things it can do. But at some point – perhaps in response to the abundance that surrounds us – we may decide to take a break for a while. Like any kind of fasting, a “cell phone fast” is a response to excess. It’s not something people who have too little will choose to do.

It’s also about discovering the resources that lie within us. After such a “fast” – once again using our smartphones – we have a different perspective on our day-to-day lives.

EvA: How so?

DS: We might rethink some of our everyday routines, for example. Instead of starting the day by checking our phones, we might choose to do something else that makes us feel good. Or we might keep our phones turned off at certain times of the day after noticing that we’re better able to concentrate or enjoy ourselves if we’re not interrupted. When waiting at a bus stop, for example, we might fantasize about taking a trip, just look around at our surroundings, or do breathing exercises.

EvA: The MIKE study found that the most popular medium for children and teenagers is cell phones or smartphones. Why is that?

DS: Because smartphones have so many functions. They can be used for communication, for searching for information, for entertainment and for listening to music. Music can be very important for young people, not least for mood regulation.

EvA: The study also showed that media behavior changes dramatically when kids reach the age of 10 or 11.

DS: While the media behavior of young children is dominated by structured options like TV shows, games and apps, adolescents are much more interested in communicating, for example through social media. So their media use is considerably more interactive, and over time they start to create their own programming.

EvA: Games become more important, too.

DS: Yes, and that holds true particularly for boys. Interest in gaming is highest at the age of 13 or 14, after which it tends to decline.

EvA: Why do more boys than girls play computer games?

DS: It’s a matter of socialization. Many games are designed to let players compare their performance with that of others. The goal is to achieve a certain position within the group – to advance and push one’s limits. This focus on performance is more in keeping with a traditional understanding of masculinity than femininity.

Girls, too, attach great importance to their position within the group, but they tend to focus more attention on gaining social prestige through friendships and closeness to others. Who is friends with whom on social networks can be very important to them. As a result, girls are drawn to games that have to do with relationships.

EvA: In extreme cases, some boys have become so obsessed with playing games that they do practically nothing else for days.

DS: A German study showed that five percent of boys are at risk of addiction to games. But you have to look carefully at the background of these cases. For the most part, these are older teenagers or young adults whose parents no longer have much influence on them.

Our studies have shown that young people with weak impulse control are particularly at risk, since they have a hard time regulating their media use. Also at risk are teenagers who are socially insecure and suffer from a weak self-concept. In some cases there are conflicts in the parent–child relationship, and excessive gaming is a way for the teenager to escape. In most cases, therefore, extreme gaming is a symptom of more serious underlying problems.

EvA: The images found today in games, movies etc. are often unrealistically perfect. Does that put pressure on young people to be perfect as well, for example in their appearance?

DS: A crucial factor is how families deal with such topics. How much importance do they attach to appearances and conforming to a certain ideal of beauty? A Canadian study found that children’s attitudes toward love and sexuality were strongly influenced by the role models provided by their parents. Seeing their parents treating each other with kindness and affection has a greater impact on children than the images presented to them by the media.

Children and teenagers are searching for role models and guidance. They pay close attention to their parents’s actions. When families fail to discuss important topics, the gap is filled by the media, which then exert a more powerful influence. Images in the media may be sources of guidance for children, but they are by no means the only ones. Young people need support.

EvA: What role should schools play in supporting students and teaching them about the media?

DS: They play a crucial role! Media skills are an important part of modern life, and families differ greatly in their ability to impart those skills. Accordingly, it is important for children to start learning to use media in school and even in preschool. It is the school’s job to teach children and show them how media can be successfully used for school-related purposes (research, presentations, documentations, etc.) and in the interest of a creative and pleasurable everyday life. All of this works best when parents, too, are involved.

Prof. Daniel Süss, a media psychologist and head of the Psychological Institute at the Zurich University of Applied Sciences (ZHAW), Switzerland, has studied media use among children and adolescents for the past 25 years. He and his team are looking at ways to improve the media skills of children as well as parents and teachers.

MIKE study